Thursday, April 28, 2011

2011 NHL Conference Semifinals Preview

By Andrew Jones

The opening round of the NHL playoffs saw only one sweep, four seven-game series, 11 overtime matches, and three double overtime matches. With the exception of Phoenix failing to show up at all, it was a really solid first round of hockey.

Also, with the exception of Phoenix not showing up for the first round, I had a pretty solid round of hockey predictions in the opening round, pegging the winners in seven out of eight series and nailing four series with the correct number of games, as well.

So what's on for the next round?

Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

The Canucks were battle-tested, without a doubt. They had four games to eliminate the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. In their first two tries, they lost by five goals both times. In their third, they lost in overtime and in their fourth and final try, facing elimination themselves, they figured it out, winning in overtime.

So what did we learn about the Canucks in the first round? The Sedin twins are not a sure bet. In the first and last game of the series, both of which were won by the Canucks, the Sedin twins had no goals and no assists. If the Canucks want to show they aren't cursed by the President's Trophy, the Sedins need to pick it up. They performed well in Games 2 and 3, won by the Canucks, but two solid performances out of seven from your best two players is not enough to continue winning in the playoffs.

Also, Robert Luongo is completely unpredictable. He blanked the Blackhawks in Game 1 and was stellar in Game 7, but in between was a mess. I think the Canucks pulled him too late in Games 4 and 5. Letting him play into the third period in Game 4 was unnecessary. He needed to regain some mental focus and while obviously sitting a goalie on the bench is hard on them mentally, so is allowing 6 goals. In hindsight, Luongo should have been pulled after the Blackhawks' third goal in Game 4, scored a whole 17 seconds after the Blackhawks' second goal.

After some solid rest and a flight back to Vancouver, Luongo could have regrouped and won the series for them at home without another trip to Chicago and back. Instead, in Game 5 Luongo let in 4 goals in less than 22 minutes at home and got benched again.

The Canucks need the Sedin twins and the need Luongo to start fresh. If Luongo can build on a brilliant Game 7, and the Sedins can put some goals in the net, the Canucks could get off to another fast start against the Predators. Winning the first two games at home would be advisable against the Predators, whose series win against the Anaheim Ducks in the opening round was the first playoff series win in franchise history.

It should also be noted that the Predators scored 3 goals or more in every single game of their series with the Ducks. Shutting them down in Game 1 might break their spirits enough to win the series.

Canucks in 6

San Jose Sharks vs. Detroit Red Wings

The Coyotes looked terrible against the Red Wings, but that's not to say that the Red Wings didn't look great. Even without Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings played team hockey, seeing all but three of its players score a goal or record an assist in only four games of play. The only question mark I see at the moment for the Wings is goaltender Jimmy Howard. Don't get me wrong, he is a solid goalie, but he only has one post season under his belt (in which he went 5-7). The series against Phoenix should certainly help his confidence, but this postseason is shaping up rather similarly to last season.

What happened last post season? The Wings got behind three games to none as Howard allowed four goals in each of the first three games. Then the Wings exploded for a 7-1 victory and lost in San Jose two days later.

The Sharks goaltending is also a question mark. Antti Niemi let way too many goals in against the Kings. The Sharks should have a shorter hook this time round for Niemi and allow backup Antero Niittymaki a chance to stop a few pucks before the game is out of hand.

What will happen this season? Howard and the Wings will have more than one day of rest between finishing off Phoenix and facing the Sharks, but don't expect things to turn out too differently. I think the Wings will win one in San Jose this year, but it will only prolong the inevitable, a San Jose victory in San Jose.

Sharks in 7

Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Capitals looked solid in their opening series, most impressively on defense. Michal Neuvirth has been spectacular between the pipes, allowing only 8 goals in five games.

On offense, Alex Ovechkin tallied 3 goals and 3 assists in five games and looks to be ready to lead the Caps through the playoffs.

It felt like the Lightning were playing from behind all series against the Penguins. However, after losing Game 4 in double overtime, and going down three games to one in the series, the Lightning battled back, winning impressively in Game 5, winning solidly in Game 6, and shutting out the Penguins 1-0 in Game 7. The Lightning proved in their opening series that they can battle adversity and win with their backs against the wall, even on the road.

The Capitals have the rest advantage, but the Lightning have the momentum, seeing as they've won three straight, two of which were on the road.

The Capitals need to shut down the Lightning early and you can count on Neuvirth to do just that. An opening series shutout will lead the way to the Capitals moving on.

Capitals in 6

Philadelphia Flyers vs. Boston Bruins

Last year's version of the playoffs had the Flyers come back against the Bruins after being down 3-0 in two separate ways. Firstly, the Bruins won the first three games of the series. Secondly, they went up 3-0 in Game 7 only to lose that, as well.

This year's version won't be quite that dramatic. The Flyers have the home ice this time around, so falling into a 3-0 hole is unlikely. Last season and in the opening round this season, the Flyers simply have found a way to win. With three goalies to choose from, it doesn't seem to matter who is between the pipes. A good or bad performance can come instantaneously from any of Philadelphia's three options at goalie and the rest of the team doesn't seem to notice. They just play hockey.

This season, the Bruins are the antithesis of the Flyers at goalie with the consistency of Tim Thomas always there to make them feel comfortable. But Thomas didn't play in last season's meeting of the Bruins and Flyers. If he had, I think the outcome may have been different.

Expect a different outcome this time around, as well. I think we'll see a lot of back and forth in the series with the series being tied after two games, four games, and six games without any blowouts.

Bruins in 7

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